Gab Marcotti recently spoke with legendary Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti for ESPNFC. Ancelotti is a good interview, not least for his eagerness to speak candidly on tactics, the softening of his own views about “systems.” But there was one remark in particular that stuck out, when Marcotti mentions a few “close calls” in which Ancelotti’s teams came within a whisker of a major trophy.
If Sergio Ramos jumps a split-second earlier or later or half an inch to either side, then there is no Decima for Real Madrid in 2013-14. And if the linesman’s flag doesn’t stay down at Manchester United in 2009-10, Ancelotti doesn’t win the Premier League at Chelsea.
“That’s the irony though isn’t it?” he says. “You as a manager are judged on results and not on the work you do and the performance of the team. Imagine paying a guy a huge amount of money and then judging him not on the things he can control, but on those he can’t.”
Whether knowingly or not, Ancelotti has neatly summed up one of the major impediments that face professional football clubs—making critical, expensive decisions with potential long-term consequences based on events that may be fundamentally outside of their control.
Of course, at one time clubs might have argued they have no way of telling the difference. Sure, it might look like Ancelotti was unlucky in these instances, but maybe those games shouldn’t have been close to begin with. The fact he required luck to win is a sign of frailty, though this completely discounts the possibility that luck may play a bigger role in winning than we realize. Most clubs see patience as an impediment, preferring like a problem gambler to place yet another expensive bet rather than hold.
Coincidentally, over at my other digs Paste, the Secret Analyst lamented that clubs don’t yet offer analysts a salary that reflects their value to the club. Part of the problem, they argue, is that clubs aren’t certain what that value is, exactly. Is it added wins per year? Fewer mistakes in recruitment? More accurate predictive models?
Maybe the value analysts offer is staring us in the face: with robust statistical models, they can help a club know, at least a little more precisely, what exactly are the kinds of things that are under a club’s control—preparation, tactics, nutrition, whatever—and what are not—a split second jump, half an inch of space etc., so that they don’t mistakenly sack someone as capable as Ancelotti in the blind hope the next guy will magically do better.
One of the things analysts like to complain about most is being ignored by the manager. Yet they could be the manager’s greatest ally, the one person who bucks the pressure and declares it’s best to stay the course rather than throw everything out and start again. And if it is the manager’s fault, they may be able to diagnose the problem before it wreaks havoc on the football pitch and the league table.
In doing so, good stats analysts can not only save the career of someone like Ancelotti, but also potentially save their team millions in unnecessary payouts and abandoned recruitment or development strategies, while ingratiating themselves with the one person in the club who has the power to put their ideas into practice on the football pitch.